During World II, Nazis not only threatened Europe, but held some influence in East Texas where thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) were held. During the war, the United States held nearly half a million Axis POWs and Texas housed roughly ten percent of these prisoners, more than any other state. One of the biggest POW camps in Texas, Camp Hearne, held approximately 4,800 prisoners. The biggest security breach in the United States POW program, and one of the best-documented instances of Nazi control, occurred at Camp Hearne.
When 275,000 members Germany's Afrika Korps surrendered in Tunisia on May 13, 1943, the Allies needed a place to hold them. Camp Hearne received some of these first prisoners on June 3, 1943. Life was relatively good at Camp Hearne where food was usually plentiful and prisoners enjoyed leisure activities, employment, and education. The United States tried to make life as good as possible for the POWs for two reasons: to ensure good treatment for American POWs and to win the hearts of the German prisoners who would return to rebuild a post-war Europe. Many POWs enjoyed Camp Hearne. However, some prisoners made life difficult for the guards and many of their fellow POWs.
Though most POWs at Camp Hearne fought for Hitler's Third Reich, not all remained loyal Nazis. But those who did stay faithful to Hitler controlled and intimidated the other prisoners through propaganda, an underground newsletter called Die Mahnung (The Admonition), and secret disciplinary hearings. The Nazi prisoners even infiltrated the POW postal service in order to censor anti-Nazi POW mail, send illegal messages and track disloyal German POWs throughout the United States.
In December 1943, the Nazi POWs punished one such disloyal German POW, Hugo Krauss. Krauss had immigrated to New York as a child but returned to Germany in 1939. He joined the German army, surrendered in 1943 and returned to the United States as a Camp Hearne POW. Camp officials made Krauss an interpreter because of his proficiency in English. Krauss reported clandestine activity to the American guards and openly criticized the Third Reich. The Nazi POWs decided to punish him and shortly after lights out, seven men beat Krauss with pipes, sticks and boards laden with nails. The attackers cracked Krauss's skull, broke both arms and caused multiple lacerations. No one in his barracks dared come to his aid and Krauss died six days later. Before Camp Hearne closed in 1946, one of the attackers, Günther Meisel, confessed to the crime. Meisel and four others went to prison for the attack, but President Harry Truman paroled them in 1949 and they returned to Germany.
Sadly, many POWs camps throughout the United States experienced similar incidents of Nazi abuse and intimidation. The United States POW program never found a way to stop the violence and power of the Nazi POWs. Ironically, the greatest threat to POW safety came from other POWs. Thousands of miles from World War II battlefields and concentration camps, a Nazi presence existed, even in East Texas.